The Enemies in the Psalms (Student Question)

Occasionally I post responses to questions I receive from my students or other readers. Here’s my answer to a question that came by email recently.

Student Question: When David is lamenting his pursuers and the dangers he’s facing, are we to interpret those only as human enemies, or can we apply the idea to the workings of the devil and the pursuing nature of sin? I’ve found it difficult to relate to certain psalms if I’m trying to directly apply them, but I’ve been wary of treating the “enemies” as a principle and a symbol for things in my own life.

That’s a great question. In the West (at least in the past), I think many Psalms readers have likely struggled to feel the same thing David feels about his enemies, because we often haven’t faced the kind of personal pursuit and persecution he so often faced. I think that’s been changing for the past number of years in the West and will continue to increase, but we still don’t see what David saw in terms of personal opposition. But the opposition to God and to the truth and to the gospel we hold dear is absolutely fierce.

As for David, he ultimately saw himself as God’s representative king. He was chosen to be king from a young age, and even though he didn’t ascend to the throne until many years later, he was still God’s chosen one throughout his adult lifetime. So part of how he sees his “enemies” in the psalms is as God’s enemies. They stand against God’s anointed one; therefore they stand against God. In fact, sometimes they stand against God’s anointed one because they stand against God.

Psalms 1-2 function as the introduction to the Psalter as a whole, and Psalm 2 really sets the tone of how God’s enemies oppose both God and his anointed king. I think we should interpret the enemy language in this way: not mainly personal enemies but enemies of God, enemies of God’s king, and enemies of God’s just and righteous purposes in the world.

In that sense, all sin and wickedness — both personal and systemic — are God’s enemies rising up against his rule. After all, you can’t separate sin from people. It’s not the material world that sins, but people who sin. In that sense, sinners are the embodiment of sin, and sin is the explanatory principle for what we as sinners are doing when we sin. The two are tied together.

So what should we do? We should join Jesus, David’s greater son, in hating sin, mourning sin, and fighting sin, and we should aggressively cooperate with his ongoing redemptive work in our lives by stamping out sin in our own hearts and in our areas of influence.

Overall, I would want to be careful, like you, to interpret the enemies David speaks of as actual people who are opposing him. But as we move out into more of a biblical theology perspective with the overall narrative of the Bible and the overall message of the Psalms in view, we should absolutely see another layer to these enemies: they embody cosmic opposition to God, his chosen king, and his good purposes for the world. And that’s just the kind of darkness we should rage against.

3 thoughts on “The Enemies in the Psalms (Student Question)

  1. I am so grateful for this perspective! I have done multiple searches on this specific question (which is how I found the article today) yet surprisingly, many other results in my searches did not support one idea or the other. I had to feel some validation that ‘yes’ the enemies referenced in the Psalms by David, were not ONLY human beings, and physical armies but Spiritual Enemies, and “our flesh” that in its natural tendency works in opposition of God. I know David did have opposition from mankind as well yet the passion and mourning in which he cried out to God for help and protection and freedom, I only hoped it was associated to sin, weakness’s, strongholds, temptations, patterns or habits he was constantly fighting…as I have walked through life facing so many of these, having the same cry and shame and exhaustion! Begging the Lord for HIS favor and support through it all, until I encounter victory through HIM. I started to believe Davids only struggle were people and his 1 famous sinful act of lust of the eyes and murder. I have journaled so similar to Davids words, as if I was relating to the Spiritual pain…but mine was self-inflected and due to my own behaviors, thoughts and brokenness. – I hope to find more insight on this particular topic. Thank you!


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